As I was digging in for a long bout of reporting to dig into some of the numbers behind Tony Kennedy’s piece in the Strib last week, I noticed that David Brauer at the MinnPost had already done the job. Read the whole thing; it finds, as I’ve always found in digging through think tank material on charter schools, that there is a lot of carefully-jiggered context and punctiliously-selected facts.
One example: the Strib piece trumpeted a “3600 percent increase in lease aid”. Brauer added a helpful bit of context (and I’ll add some emphasis):
Given the front-page headline (“Junk bonds fuel a building spree …”), readers could be forgiven for assuming that charter construction was the big factor behind lease aid soaring 3600 percent in 15 years.
But the building boom had little to do with the spending boom. Here’s what did:“Charter lease aid sees fast rise in use” because charter enrollment is rising fast. Since 2004, lease aid has been capped at $1,200 per pupil unit. (The state weights pupils based on their grade level; kindergarteners lower, high schoolers higher.)
Though a few schools are grandfathered in at a higher amount, the $1,200 cap hasn’t budged since ‘04, and you can see the impact on average per-pupil aid:
Unfortunately, when it comes to owning infrastructure, “economy of scale” becomes an issue. It’s one of the reasons that the big public school districts have consolidated rural schools and abandoned neighborhood schools in the cities; it’s cheaper, in some ways, to run one building for 1,200 students than six buildings for 200. As the administrative overburden on schools increases, there’s been an inexorable push to centralize more schools, build more, bigger buildings…
…which, I maintain, has been a huge problem for public education. While the link between large classroom sizes and academic performance is arguable at best, I strongly suspect (but am unaware of any hard data at the moment) that big schools breed huge problems. The anonymity of huge schools (like Saint Paul’s Central High, with around 2,000 students) makes it easy for a student to get lost in the shuffle, to feel disconnected and uprooted (I’m writing from the experiences of at least one of my children, here).
One of the programs that public school supporters constantly bring up in support of public schools is the “International Baccalaureate” (IB) program. IB programs do indeed get good results. Part of it is that they focus their efforts on the kids who do excel at the “sit your butt in the chair, do what you’re told when you’re told to do it, and spend your evenings doing homework” model of education. Not everyone works well in that kind of system – I’d have floundered – but the other key factor is IB programs are smaller. At Central, the IB is a “school within a school”; all the staff know all the kids, and vice versa; it’s the rough equivalent of a smaller neighborhood school, substituting an intellectual “neighborhood” (the “elite” nature of the IB student base) for a traditional neighborhood.
Which is one of the beauties of the charter system; when my ex-wife and I pulled our kids out of the Saint Paul schools, they ended up at charter schools with less than 200 kids each. All the staff knew all the kids, and most of the parents; the parents largely got to know each other and many of the kids. Most importantly, the kids felt they belonged to a larger group – something kids seek out instinctively.
They certainly seek it out at the big factory-model schools; if the school or an athletic team or a church group doesn’t provide it, they’ll find it in the form of “the wrong crowd”; gangs, or whatever social circle is convenient; in a huge school, which is almost purpose-designed to alienate kids who don’t get with the program, there are plenty of alienated, disaffected, “dropped-through-the-cracks” kids to fall in with.
After dealing with that, a charter school was a blessed respite of sanity.
So when a school opts to try to build itself a permanent home base, through the thin loophole allowed in state law, by affiliating with a construction company, several things happen.
- The school floats a bond issue. Since the bonds are for a small organization, they are not rated by Moody 0r Standard and Poor – hence, they’re called “Junk Bonds”.
- Being “Junk” bonds, and because a charter school can’t pass a tax levy to make the payments, the interest rates are higher.
- Since the interest rates are higher, there’s an imperative to get more revenue through the door, to buff up the cash flow. Since “lease aid” is capped at $1,200 per student per year, that means that to have enough revenue to both build the buiding and service the debt, they’ll need to get more students into the building, to get more of those $1,200 allotments.
Which drives up class sizes.
To lure the investors they need for new buildings, some educators are abandoning the intimate campuses their founders envisioned and are building large schools that look more like the conventional institutions that some families are fleeing. Some charter school advocates say the build-your-own trend could undermine an education movement built on small class size and parental involvement.
“It destroys the intent and initial purpose behind all of it,” said Paul Simone, director of the Math and Science Academy charter school in Woodbury, a National Blue Ribbon award winner under the No Child Left Behind Act.
But the problem isn’t “the charter school movement”. The problem is the laws under which charter schools have to operate. They are public schools in every way except their individual “corporate” governance; they use public money, but are controlled by a site-elected board.
But when it comes to real estate, they are hamstrung by the unintended consequences of a law that not only puts them at a big economic disadvantage to public schools, but to private and parochial schools as well. Public schools, being big public entities backed by big taxing authority, can float bonds at very advantageous rates; parochial schools operate with the tax advantages, as well as demographic strengths (and weaknesses) of a faith community; private schools can charge whatever tuition the market will bear, are less restricted in terms of fundraising, and the big ones can build endowments.
So why not allow charters to piggyback onto public bond issues, to build their buildings at the vastly lower interest rates that this would allow?
Or why not allow charter schools to lease vacated public school buildings from their local districts? Policies on this vary from district to district; some allow it, others don’t.
Why not, indeed?
For purposes of the Strib’s “investigation”, and the non-profits like MN2020 who have charter schools in their crosshairs, it’s because the goal isn’t to make charter schools viable; it’s to kill them off.
Friday: Coincidental similarities?